Three weeks ago, Republican Gov. Phil Scott outlined his proposal to have the state negotiate teacher health care benefits. Standing beside him were school board members, school superintendents and the secretary of education.
School board members continue to advocate for a statewide health care benefit. Despite the efforts and lobbying of the Vermont School Boards Association and the Vermont Superintendents Association, the two plans proposed by the Democratic leadership would put pressure on school boards.
Both the Webb amendment that passed the House and the Ashe proposal that passed the Senate would require school boards to make some difficult choices.
The Senate plan leaves bargaining to the school boards, reduces the education fund by $13 million to give property tax payers a break, and tells school boards to negotiate a specific deal to garner savings from an upcoming switch in health care plans. If school boards fail to get an 80/20 premium split on a particular plan and put an exact amount of money into health savings accounts to help cover teachers’ out-of-pocket costs, they will have to cut their already approved budgets.
The Vermont chapter of the National Education Association doesn’t want a statewide health care benefit, saying it would intrude upon teachers’ right to negotiate directly with their employers, the local school boards. Darren Allen, spokesperson for the teachers union, said the plan is “insidious” and an attack on a fundamental right.
“We have watched what happened in other states, and it sadly seems to be getting a foothold with some people here,” he said.
Last week, Dresden School Board Chair Neil Odell wrote a letter to lawmakers describing board members as outmatched by the Vermont-NEA. Odell has spent seven years negotiating for Marion Cross School in Norwich and the middle and high school in Hanover, New Hampshire, in an interstate school district. He said the teachers union has a “clear advantage in collective bargaining.”
The state is divided into seven regions. Each has a person called a UniServ director who works for the Vermont-NEA and is responsible for contracts in that area. In 2016, the regional heads’ salaries (without benefits) totaled nearly $1 million, according to the union’s annual report to the U.S. Department of Labor. (Click on the document at the end of this story.)
UniServ directors are former teachers’ negotiators who take jobs with the union to train, advise and supervise bargaining in their region. They are arguably among those with the most to lose from a statewide teacher contract. The directors, who all make six-figure salaries totaling $958,304 in 2016, include:
Norman Bartlett in southern Vermont; David Boulanger in Chittenden County; Stuart Russo-Savage in central Vermont; Suzanne Dirmaier in northwestern Vermont; Jerry Carruba in the Northeast Kingdom, who succeeded Joyce Foster; Sean Leach in Addison-Rutland; and Robert Raskevitz in the Upper Valley.
Odell said they organize and coordinate bargaining across the state.
“At frequent dinner meetings, they share information between schools, and they orchestrate responses and settlements,” Odell said.
Dresden is one of the more than 60 school districts currently negotiating teacher contracts because of a switch to new health plans occurring Jan. 1 because of the Affordable Care Act. Odell said the teachers and support staff knew the details of a tentative agreement in a neighboring school district before it was ratified.
“In almost every round of negotiations, our teachers and support staff have referenced settlements in other school districts that hadn’t been announced or even ratified. It’s clear to me that the VT NEA is already negotiating at the state level — the party that isn’t — and legally can’t — are local school boards,” he wrote.
The seven UniServ directors orchestrate the sequencing of the settlements to bring in contracts that best benefit teachers first, according to school board members who have been informed of the process. This creates a landscape of comparable contracts that becomes important when bargaining ends up in the hands of fact finders.
If negotiations reach impasse, they go to mediation and then to fact finding. Fact finders listen to both sides but look less at the economic conditions and grand lists of an area and more at what other contracts settled for in that region.
Mark Porter is a member of the Burlington School Board who negotiated last year’s one-year teacher contract that went to impasse, was imposed and almost drew a strike before it settled.
The board had Jeffrey Carr, president and senior economist at Eco and Policy Resources, testify on its behalf. He explained the local economic conditions, aging demographics, flat wages and rate of inflation, but none of this was used by the fact finder, according to Porter.
“We testified for hours, and none of this was brought up in the fact finding report. … It came down to the comparables,” Porter said. The board was told it could afford to give teachers a 3.25 percent raise.
The UniServ directors pressure each other. If a regional head has a poorly settled contract, it could harm the comparability pattern being built by the other six. So, one strategy would be to slow down progress by delaying mediation or fact finding on certain contract negotiations to get better results from others, and then use those to boost the remaining results, according to sources who serve on school board negotiation teams.
The sides are well-matched, according to Allen. “To suggest former teachers” — the UniServ directors — “are outgunning full-time superintendents and full-time business managers is a curious argument,” he said. He added it’s equally surreal to suggest school boards are left alone and don’t have a statewide school board organization managing the development of their negotiations.
School board members have the help of the VSBA and full-time, taxpayer-supported attorneys, Allen said.
But the boards’ association is no match for the Vermont-NEA, according to Odell.
“The VT NEA has financial resources in excess of $5 million. The Vermont School Board’s Association has roughly 1/5th those resources,” Odell wrote.
In the 2015-2016 election cycle, the teachers union spent $66,150 in campaign contributions to Democrats running for the Legislature and state office. The union $8,000 on Democrat Sue Minter’s failed gubernatorial bid, according to election records filed with the secretary of state.
The VSBA, a nonprofit, has 501(c)(3) tax status and cannot contribute to or coordinate with political campaigns.
The union leadership doesn’t change, and the negotiating teams of teachers are stable and garner more knowledge with time. But school boards are public bodies that often change membership, and they must abide by public meeting and public records laws.
“We cannot collaborate on bargaining. We may not condition bargaining (and for good reason). The VT NEA can and do coordinate their negotiations so that they can achieve favorable settlements,” Odell wrote in his letter.
But the unions do not see it that way. “We make no apologies for helping our members reach settlements that keep them in the profession. That keeps veteran teachers in Vermont. Ultimately, the people who make the decisions are the local negotiation teams and the school boards,” Allen said.
Who is on each side?
In an interview, Odell said he works full time as a software developer at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center. His part-time job — for which he is paid $300 a year — is serving on the school board and collectively bargaining teacher and support staff contracts.
“I don’t see how this is a level playing field,” he said.
But the teachers are also volunteering their time to bargain with their employers. “The people at the table are the team of local educators, but the field staff (UniServ directors) does provide assistance,” Allen said.
Still, more and more, school board members are saying they don’t feel like they are bargaining with their students’ teachers, but with the state union instead. They feel as though the agenda is being driven by someone other than those in the classroom.
“I feel like I’m negotiating with the Vermont-NEA,” Odell said.
Porter agreed, saying the teachers his board has gone up against in the past are savvy, smart and seem to know more specific details about items than board members.
The union is concerned the Scott proposal would lead Vermont down the road of Wisconsin and some other states. Nearly five years ago, Wisconsin passed Act 10 limiting the ability of union workers, including teachers and public employees, to bargain on salary, benefits or working conditions. Teachers in Wisconsin have reported a drop in salary and increase in health care costs.
Allen said the state should heed the cautionary tale of states that choose to go down this road. “States with collective bargaining also have the best schools in the country. … Our peer states are all states with strong collective bargaining,” he said, because teacher quality is higher in places where they can make a career and raise a family.
Similar arguments before
What do 1994, 2005 and 2017 all have in common? Montpelier crafted proposals to move teacher contract talks from local school districts to the state level. The attempts failed in the first two — one led by then-Speaker of the House Ralph Wright, a former teacher and card-carrying union member; the second led by three GOP House members.
The same arguments have been made in each round: Collective bargaining is a fundamental right, volunteer school board members need help going up against the teachers union, and property tax payers need relief.
Wright’s pre-Brigham bill was defeated in conference committee, and he blamed then-Gov. Howard Dean for not getting behind it. He told Seven Days: “I needed a Republican governor who could jerk [GOP Sens. Bill Doyle, John Carroll and John Bloomer, the Senate conferees] into his office and say, ‘Look, fellas, this is gonna get done. You at least send the bill back to the Senate floor!’”
In 2005, three Republicans — one of whom is still serving, Rep. Kurt Wright, of Burlington, introduced H.138, which would have had schoolteachers negotiate contracts with the state. One of the arguments being made in favor was that schools are paid for with a statewide property tax and teacher retirement is supported by the state.
Wright speculated the GOP proposal was likely a union-busting move, but he still saw a statewide teacher contract as liberating for educators: “What more effective impact could you have on an injustice at Colchester than to have 8,000 teachers go out in protest?”